Hard-hit federal training gets attention in Obama’s 2015 budget proposal

Joe Davidson
Columnist March 2

When President Obama presents his 2015 fiscal year budget proposal Tuesday, he’ll serve an appetizer to a crucial area of government that has been on a starvation diet — federal employee training.

The administration isn’t saying how large its initiative is, but it would take a big serving to get training where it needs to be.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

“The president’s budget proposal will include measures to improve federal employee training and support and exchange of training ideas across government,” Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Director Katherine Archuleta told a legislative conference of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) on Friday. “We need to learn from one another about what works. We need to be able to talk about our successes.”

That could be a relatively short conversation, given the way training has been slashed by recent budget cuts and overreaction to federal employee conference scandals.

Look at the Internal Revenue Service.

The IRS is one place that should get fat during a period of austerity, because the revenue it collects feeds everything else in government. Citing the IRS, the NTEU said every dollar invested in tax enforcement programs returns at least four. The agency was ridiculed after a $4 million Anaheim, Calif., conference in 2010 that featured a “Star Trek” video parody.

Ramifications continue. The decline in IRS training is staggering.

According to the IRS’s National Taxpayer Advocate 2013 Annual Report to Congress, submitted by Nina E. Olson:

●The IRS training budget was cut by more than 85 percent from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2013

●In 2013, less than $250 per employee was spent on training, an 83 percent reduction from the $1,450 spent in 2009.

Most operating divisions dealing directly with taxpayers “fared worse than the agency as a whole,” Olson’s Taxpayer Advocate Service found.

●The appeals division training budget fell from $6 million in 2009 to $250,000 in 2013, a 96 percent drop.

●Training in the small business/self-employed division fell 93 percent.

“Taxpayers seeking assistance and relief from the IRS will find a workforce lacking the knowledge and ability to provide assistance if the IRS continues to meet budgetary obligations by simply not training its employees,” the report said.

Last week, IRS Commissioner John A. Koskinen told a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing that he “will do everything possible to ensure that they [employees] have the . . . training to support them in their work and allow them to reach their full potential to best serve taxpayers.”

But how much is possible with drastic cuts in training dollars?

NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley said training is “one of the unseen casualties of the sequester. What was once standard training is being eliminated or postponed and more training is being conducted online.” Kelley, who represents IRS staffers, predicted this could lead to drops in customer service and revenue collection.

Training issues are not confined to the IRS. Lack of training is an important element in low morale throughout the workforce.

The OPM’s 2013 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey asked workers: “How satisfied are you with the training you receive for your present job?” Fifty-six percent answered positively in 2010, but that dropped steadily to 50 percent last year. Similarly, the government-wide training and development score in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report by the Partnership for Public Service has fallen year after year since 2009.

The budget-cutting sequester took a toll on training, “and we didn’t start from a very good place,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership, a nonprofit that studies the federal workplace.

He contrasted training in the military, where “they grow [their people] in every way that they can,” with the civilian side of government, where employees “are treated as a cost rather than as an asset.”

In an odd way, he added, “it’s almost worse the more senior you get. So, for the SES [Senior Executive Service] and frankly for even political appointees, there is virtually nothing. It’s a real problem.” (The Partnership has a content sharing relationship with The Washington Post).

The administration recognizes the problem. Obama’s budget proposal includes funding for the OPM to build stronger training for new senior managers and for “training opportunities for current senior managers that emphasize diversity and the changing needs of a 21st Century workforce,” according to an administrative spokesperson who would provide information only without being named.

Seemingly on the same page with the president’s budget plan, a Government Accountability Office report scheduled for release Monday says the “OPM is not sharing lessons learned from agencies that have experience assessing executive training impact on agency mission.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who requested the report, said it “shows agencies aren’t paying enough attention to how much they spend on employee training and whether they get the most bang for the buck. With a few simple steps, agencies could save money and still accomplish desired training.”

For agencies such as the IRS, paying attention to how much is spent on employee training means watching those figures drop and drop and drop.

“If the IRS fails to train employees in the substantive knowledge and skills they need to perform their jobs successfully,” Olson’s report said, “taxpayers cannot expect to receive assistance from employees with the knowledge and skills to help them.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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